Tuesday, November 5, 2013


My Peace Corps service officially ended on September 17, 2013.

Up until the last day at site, if anyone asked me if I was ready to go home the answer was "Hell Yes!" Thoughts of my family and friends, buffalo wings smothered in hot sauce, juicy hamburgers grilled to perfection, and cheese that didn't taste like erasers were increasingly taking over my brain. Sometimes I would snap out of these thoughts to find myself staring into space with drool creeping down my chin. But don't get me wrong. I was continuing to enjoy my last days at site and kept busy until the last minute. And as it turned out, leaving the Philippines was one of the most difficult things I've ever had to do.

Alumni reuniting at my going away party in La Trinidad.
In the Philippines, it is common to hold "despedidas" or going away parties for friends leaving for an extended time. I decided that I would have two: one at site, and one in La Trinidad where I completed my Pre-Service Training. It was great to see my first host family for the last time, as well as say goodbye to friends that I had met during my first few months in the Philippines. Wonderful food was served on the rooftop of a friend's house, and the guitar was brought out and songs were sung. The greatest part of the evening was when many of my old students, who had graduated and chosen to pursue their studies in college, began showing up one by one to offer their farewells. It meant so much to me especially since some traveled as long as 8 hours to be there that night. 

One of the completed murals.
With two weeks to go, I decided to start wrapping up projects at site. My hair grew back. So much so that I let one of the students give me my final haircut. He did a great job! Values class went awesome. Students are no longer afraid of condoms and discussed other life-skills like prioritizing responsibilities, and their role as a responsible community citizen. Some even went out and planted pine trees! The murals were completed, and I cleared out my desk just in time to relax for the District Athletic Meet. After cheering on our athletes despite drizzly weather, I had two days to go and decided it was about time to start thinking about packing up things to go home. My final despedida was scheduled for Monday, the night before I would leave for Manila. Fitting two years of memories into two suitcases proved a challenge, but I was able to do it! Although I would have loved to bring Siglat back home with me, I arranged for my host family to keep him. He's so happy there and I'm sure I can trust them to care for him.

Getting ready to sing.
When I arrived to school Monday, I was surprised to see posters that the students had made, leading me all the way down to the school. The students prepared a few songs and games for our classes that morning with lots of picture taking. After lunch the entire school marched up to the community hall for a program with songs, dancing and playing of the gongs. The party was wrapped up with a raffle in which I gave away ALL of my belongings left in my apartment, from the frying pan to t-shirts to the bedroom mirror. Every student got a little piece of my life from the past two years to keep.

Playing the gongs! For the final time....

Raffling off my stuff

After the party, the teachers and some of the older students followed me back for dinner at my host family's house. It was a difficult night, saying goodbye for the final time and realizing the impact I had on the students, and the impact they had on me. I kept my composure until the following morning when my host family bid me farewell on the bus. I'm sure I made the Filipino sitting next to me very uncomfortable as he was forced to sit by this strange foreigner with tears streaming down his face. It dawned on me that I was leaving family and friends, just as close and important to me as those I have at home in the US.

Fourth Year 'Pearls' 
As volunteers, sometimes our biggest struggle is witnessing the lack of a tangible impact. After all, who doesn't want something to show for all their hard work? But sometimes, it's the relationships we build that are the biggest accomplishment. After two years, my greatest successes come from the students who have told me that I am the reason they didn't drop out of school, or am the one who inspired them to volunteer. Raising English test scores doesn't mean as much as hearing a students say that I am the one who boosted their confidence in speaking English and is now studying at a top university, or gave them the courage to confront their family problems.

The Peace Corps' slogan is "The hardest job you'll ever love." Now that I'm finished, I have to say that I agree completely. The last two years have been a roller coaster of emotions, testing my strength in about every aspect of my life. But the best part of the experience was discovering what I love. 

As the Pinoy escapade draws to a close, it makes me both nervous and excited as to what adventure life will lead me to next. This will be my final post. Thank you to everyone who has followed my experience for the last 27 months!

Until the next chapter,


Senior students
Fourth year 'Diamond' students
The remaining cluster!

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Banana Training

100 Islands National Park
The school year is underway. In addition to teaching English, I was also given the subject of Values for the senior students.

Values is taught three days a week and typically involves a short sermon to students about quitting their bad vices, focusing on their ambitions, and strengthening their spiritual relationship with God. I asked the principal if I might take a slightly different approach. She said go for it. When she asked what materials I would need, I said only two things. A condom and a banana.

Since I started teaching at Mt. Data, three students have become pregnant and several others had previously given birth. This is somewhat surprising given that there are only around  200 students at the school ranging between the ages of 11 and 16. On top of the problems of drinking, smoking, and gambling, it was easy to see that the values subject wasn’t as effective as it was meant to be.

I found an excellent resource - a teaching manual from Advocates for Youth meant to give Life Planning sessions to inner city children in the U.S. By following the lesson plans and altering it to fit the students, I have been enjoying this subject more than any other. It’s been a great chance to help educate the students and prepare them for topics that are typically seen as taboo in public schools. We tackled gender equality, sexuality, safe-sex, and a ton of other topics including the STD horror show we all encountered in middle school sex-ed. We have also discussed peer pressure and relationships, and this quarter the students are planning community projects to improve their communities.

While I have been given full support by the staff, I am wondering what parents will say this Wednesday during our parent-teacher conferences. An American teaching Filipino values? I’m sure it will cause some protest. What Filipinos generally assume about Americans is that the second we turn 18 we abandon our parents to go frolic and have lots of sex and eat white bread and get filthy rich. So I’ll be surprised if no parents make a few comments to the school about my role in the development of their child’s principles.

On top of teaching, my time has been spent helping to advise the new Art Club and organize basketball games for the students. Last month was our Nutrition Month program during which students danced and brought huge vegetables from their gardens to showcase before cooking them and eating.

The Peace Corps Close of Service Conference was held at the beginning of the month and was the last chance most of the volunteers had to say goodbye to their fellow volunteers before going home to the U.S. On the way to the conference I stopped at One Hundred Islands National Park with my host family to go island hopping and explore the hundreds of small islets. It was beautiful and I’m happy I got the chance to have one last adventure with my host siblings.

With less than a month to go I’m trying to make the most of my time left. While many volunteers choose to travel around the Philippines during their last few weeks, I’ve decided to dedicate it to my site. I’ve developed close relationships in a lot shorter time than two years before, so saying goodbye to my friends here will surely be difficult. My going away party is planned next month so I will have my last in-country blog post then!

Dancing to "Gentleman" during the Nutrition Day program.

Dance crew preparing to play the gongs in a tribal dance.

Jump Cabbage

How teens look cool.

Our campsite at 100 Islands

My host family and I at the national park.

Filipino Haircut

June means the start of school and it also means every student and teacher in the Philippines will be making the trip to the barber to get a haircut, myself included.

Getting my haircut is one of my favorite things to do here for several reasons:
  •      A haircut typically costs between 30-50 pesos. That’s around $1.
  •      The barbers use enormous scissors like you would use to sheer a sheep.
  •      They take their work very seriously, methodically shaping your head like it’s a piece of art.
  •      Afterwards they crack your neck or give you a short shoulder massage.

Local hole in the wall barber shops usually consist of 2-6 chairs lined up between mirrors similar to what you would see in the U.S.  There is sort of a menu of options you ask for. For example, “High Cut” will leave you with short hair on the sides and a crew cut on the top. “Siete” or “Seven,” will make your hair flat on top and straight down the neck like the shape of a seven. “Calbo” or “Bald” will leave you bald, while “Semi-Calbo” will leave you with a buzz cut.

I’ve had my hair cut maybe a dozen times since being in country. The procedure is always the same. Walk in give my order, and walk out a new man. The weekend before the first day of school left me searching for the barber with the smallest line out front its doors. I walked in and gave the usual instructions.

“Clean cut.” This means just a trim. I get it every time.

“Sir, clean cut?” the barber asked.


“With electric razor?”

“Yes.” Anyway that is standard procedure. They usually start with the neck. But this time they didn’t.

“Ok sir, clean cut.”


Right down the middle.

“AYSUS!” I literally shouted and nearly knocked the razor out of his hand. I don’t even know why I said “aysus” I must have been in the country long enough to where expressions just slip of my tongue.
I angrily told him had I asked for clean cut, not “calbo.”

“But sir, this is a clean cut,” he said. I told him he was crazy and he turned to the other barbers who all nodded enthusiastically. “Yes, yes, that is clean cut.”

Sitting there starring myself in the mirror with a bald streak down the center of my head there was only one thing that could be done.

“Just finish it,” I said.

Afterwards I went straight outside and bought a cap and a beanie for fifty pesos. All I could think of was what would I do in two days when I was expected to show up for the first day of school? I went home and stared at myself in the mirror. Eventually I just forced myself to accept it and not to hide it. Anyway people would get used to it eventually (I was wrong on that bit of logic).

Reactions on the first day of school were as to be expected. Jaws hit the floor, students just starred and whispered. Strangely the comments were not what I expected.

“Sir, why did you get calbo?” they would ask. “It is winter.” Apparently it wasn’t the fact that I was walking around with a shiny scalp that intrigued them. It was the fact that only an insane person would choose to go bald at the onset of winter. I explained the story and it became a joke around the school. I laughed along with it and at the interesting names they came up with for me. Mr. Clean, Brue Willis, Vin Diesel. One student said I looked like a chess pawn. Hahaha! Two and a half months later I still only have about an inch of hair. It’s growing agonizingly slow for some reason but hopefully by the time I fly home it will be back to normal!

Mural Painting

Has it really been five months since my last post? I guess as time goes on and things become normal topics seem less and less interesting to write about. But with less than a month left to go, I often wonder what I’m going to say to people when I arrive home. Certainly most of you will want an abridged version of my life in the past two years, so writing it out seems like good practice. And since it’s currently down-pouring and gusting 1000mph outside (not a typhoon, but who can tell the difference?), I don’t really have an excuse not to update you guys on what’s been happening the last few months!

I returned to site sun-burnt and exhausted from the sand and sun and 12 hour bus rides. During the summer, Mt. Data becomes a lonely place with most of the high school students returning home to their villages, replaced by a few of the college students returning to visit their parents for a few weeks before returning to the much more exciting life in Baguio City. I spent most of the time at the school finalizing a college guidebook and thinking of a summer project.

A common Peace Corps project is creating a mural of the World Map in the community or school. While my school already completed the World Map project (initiated by a previous Peace Corps Volunteer), I decided to plan another mural, this time a map of the Philippines.

Because there was no template for a Philippines map painting, I had to start from scratch. This proved far more challenging than I could have imagined, as the first and most difficult step was in finding a reliable map of the Philippines. This is surprising because the shape of the Philippine Islands as become sort of a national pride icon of the country. It’s patch is sewn onto t-shirts and jackets, stickers placed on the backs of phones and laptops, the image flashed during the opening jingle of news and television programs. However no two maps I examined were the same, with most inconsistencies in regards to the division of regions, and the size and shape of regions in general.

I finally settled on one, printed out the grid, and used a little of the English Club money to buy some paint and brushes. I called for the few students left in Mt. Data with nothing to do to come and help make the map.

The first step was drawing the grid. It was long, tedious, boring work but necessary for an accurate map. Next, the students drew an enlarged representation of the map onto the wall, using the squares of the grid as a reference.

Tracing the map onto the grid.

After the map was drawn, we traced it in permanent marker and began painting in the regions. A quick lesson in Philippine geography. The country is generally divided into three large regions: Luzon (where I am), Visayas (the center of the country with lots of islands), and Mindanao (forbidden to Peace Corps Volunteers). The country is further divided into 17 regions. These regions are divided down into provinces. Provinces consist of cities and towns, with each town broken down into villages or barangays. I live in the barangay of Mt. Data in the town of Bauko in Mountain Province in the Cordillera Administrative Region.

Painting in the regions.

After painting the map (color coded by region), the students began labeling the map. Again tedious work because they are perfectionists when it comes to making letters. But it was worth the wait! My friend Becky (another Peace Corps Volunteer) also came up to lend us her eye for detail and make our map 100% perfect!

Labeling the map.

As of now the map is still not finished; the students are listing the names of the more than 80 provinces on the two columns on either side of the map. It has been a good project because the students have learned a lot about their own geography, now knowing the locations of all the places they here about in the news. We also continued the project by making a map of our region, province and town for a total of four maps! 

Nearly finished!

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Silvery B--ches

Poetry is a main component of the students' English curriculum. A popular poem discussed in our lessons of Asian literature is Silvery Beaches by Nu Yin. The first time I presented this lesson I had my students share any experiences they have had on the beach. Coming from Mt. Province many have not even seen the ocean, so I asked how they imagined it to be.

My jaw fell open when the first kid shouted out, "All bi*ches are dirty!"
Another argued, "No, all the bi*ches I've seen are beautiful."

My lesson in poetry quickly turned into a lesson on correctly pronouncing the word "beach."

This summer I had the opportunity to travel to the Visayas, the group of islands in the center of the Philippines. The trip was hot. It was humid. And it unfolded some of the most spectacular and stunning places I've ever seen. It's amazing how quickly everything can be forgotten staring out at the vastness of the sea. It was the perfect remedy for the stress building up around the end of school.

From Dumaguete to Siquijor to Bohol. I was on a mission to find the most beautiful beach. Why did I think it would be a challenge? Everywhere we went offered a different experience and unique atmosphere.

From Dumaguete we took a boat to Apo Island and snorkeled  This island is tiny but the people were super friendly. When I think of "Island Culture" I think of Apo. Sitting around sipping on beer or a coke and watching the fishermen bring in the nets while the kids snorkel in the shallow water. The electricity comes on for only a couple of hours in the evening lighting up the coast. 

Our boat that brought us from Dumaguete to Apo Island
and  later to Siquijor.

Apo Island

From Dumaguete our boat made the 3 hour bumpy ride to Squijorr, an island known for it's mysticism, herbal healing and sorcery. My host mom even warned me about vampires before I left. "Make sure you don't leave a strand of hair behind or they will make a voodoo of you!" 

I'm not sure where these myths and rumors began, but Siquijor couldn't have been more opposite from a dark and scary place. Bordered by white sand beaches and palm trees the people seemed to be entirely happy and relaxed. The lazy roads were strewn with crushed coral, and when we made it into the mountains for the Herbal Healing Festival, we were actually disappointed that the "shamans" turned out to be more like Christian priests rubbing crucifixes around various body parts. We did see a few women selling some herbal lotions and teas, but whoa! Way out of our volunteer price range.

San Juan, Siquijor

Coastal road on Siquijor Island

Women selling natural remedies to cure all ailments.

After spending four glorious days on Siquijor we took a ferry to Bohol. Too cheap to pay for the fast boat, we took the budget 6 hour night trip. We had the option for Tourist Class (with AC) or regular (no AC). You can guess what we chose. 

Sweat drenching our clothes and our backs sticking to the vinyl covers of our tiny bunk beds, it was not the most comfortable of trips. At one point a volunteer said she felt like we were in the third class of the Titanic.

When we arrived in Bohol things brightened back up. The island of adventure is full of activities for tourists. I was able to find yet another amazing beach in Anda. The Bohol Bee Farm served amazing organic food and I ate meals there at lest three times. We also got to visit a tarsier sanctuary and see the little creatures that Bohol is famous for. Our trip concluded with a visit to a lodge hidden away in the jungle along the Luboc River. I even flew down the longest and highest zip line I've ever seen, spanning the entire river gorge. 

Economy class.


Anda, Bohol

Luboc River

Zip lining across the river (see above).

It may have only been for two weeks, but that vacation was just what I needed to rejuvenate my enthusiasm at site. Of course the pictures don't do it justice and I would recommend these places (especially Siquijor) to anyone looking for a relaxing spot to unwind. I would love to go back again, but I know that there are many other beautiful places to explore in this country first. 

(nu yin)

For relations
I visited this place

On this silvery beach
Beside the cliffs
I walked in thought.
I gazed at the endless sea
And i pondered.

Gazing at the sapphire and green sea
I felt calm.
I did not tire of staring at the waves coming towards the beach
Like crumbling mountains
With terrific sound
Like wanting to devour and swallow,
Being alone, I felt scared
And took shelter from this tide and rough wind

Beyond the edge of cliff
While i was seeking shelter
I thought of the cliffs
And of our lives.

Though these dreadful waves
Could sometimes overleap,
They could not overwhelm cliffs.
"Similarly in one's existence
though violent minds
like rough winds
may be attacking you,
if one practices patience
one can have tranquility in one's heart."

When taking shelter behind a cliff

This thought came to me

Friday, March 22, 2013

School's Out!

So many things have happened since my last post I had to go back and read my own blog to see where I left off!

Valentine's Day was followed by our school Prom. The kids worked really hard to put together a nice program and use what they could to decorate our community recreation hall. Girls drifted off early to go prepare for what they had been waiting months for. The boys ran off searching last minute for a clean shirt to wear. Some boys came over to my apartment and asked if I would tie their neckties. I helped them get ready. A few actually found vests which I though looked pretty snazzy...until their friends started laughing and shouting "waiter, waiter!" Apparently a vest is the common uniform of waiters and bartenders in the Philippines. In a cloud of cologne, we all went up together and it was fun watching them find the courage to ask a girl to dance and hear the whoops and hollers anytime someone would hit the lights.

They days following revealed the relationships that formed from those first dances. It brought on the type of drama I tried to avoid back in high school. I always wondered if teachers were aware of anything going on. If it's anything like here, the answer is yes! In fact, the teachers here seem to enjoy gossiping about relationships as much as the students.

The group of kids coming over to my house continued every week growing in number until a peak of around 20 who came over during my birthday. The boys grilled fish on the barbecue and my host mom made a HUGE batch of pancit (stir fried noodles). We also made a cake and served up punch, despite they constant requests that I bring out the Tanduay rum.

While school continues to feel like work, the relationships I've formed with these kids are the ones I know will last forever. It makes all the frustrations worth it witnessing even the smallest impressions take place. The truth is I look forward every week to them coming over whether it be for English games or jamming on the guitar. And I've learned just as much from the boys as they have learned from me. The good news is I've got plenty of pictures to remember these nights. Any time the camera is left out, the night quickly turns to a photo shoot and usually a flexing contest between the boys.

Game of the Generals: My favorite Filipino board game.

My guitar is probably the true reason they come over.

Homemade version of Bananagrams. By far the most popular English game among the students!

Gotta show off for the camera.

I can't always understand what's going on. Just play along and hope they don't kill each other.

As the bottle bricks continued to stack up, I started gathering the materials necessary to make some more benches. Purchasing cement took all of our available funds, so when it came to getting a hold of sand and gravel, we had to fetch our own. So, once again I accompanied a group of students to Tinpunan (remember the bamboo?). Thankfully this time we had a truck to haul the sand. But the students still had to carry sack fulls of wet sand from the river to the truck. Who needs a wheelbarrow anyway? We also collected some river stone to make a walking path in our school park. Our school campus is looking pretty darn good with our new benches!

Stacking river stones in the truck.

According to the students, they are used to carrying an average of 80-100 kilos per sack. That's 200 lbs!!!!!

We use soda bottles filled with non-biodegradable trash as bricks for our benches.

Our town fiesta came next. I went to watch our students perform int he folkdance competition. The day was cut short by rain. We celebrated however, glad to finally have water. It's been dry since December  I've been without running water, having to haul it from the neighbor's drum.

Our school was awarded 2nd place in the competition. While I waited stranded in a restaurant waiting for the rain to stop I got hungry. But nothing on the menu looked particularly delicious...even the hamburger lost its appeal.

The students waiting their turn to dance the Filipino Polka.
These people just love their canines.

Yesterday was graduation and I think I may have been more excited than the students for the end of school. This year the school bought western style gowns for the graduates and sewed on strips of native weaving to give it a local flair. The students made their own hats out of cardboard and paper.
The graduation started promptly at 8:30. It also included special recognition and awards for all of the underclassmen. At the conclusion of the ceremony I took around a hat (like last year) and asked for everyone's autograph. I planned on giving them each a U.S. dollar, but after searching for two days was unable to find even one at any of the banks.

In our community it is common for the families of the graduates prepare buckets of food and the friends and family go around from house to house eating and chatting and drinking native rice wine. Last year I accompanied the teachers and made it to two houses; this year I was invited with a group of students and we visited a grand total of 14 parties until well after dark. We spent time at each house talking with families and sampling all the food. 

Graduation Procession

Families and friends place lays and plastic flowers on the necks of graduates after the ceremony.
Collecting autographs.

Going around visiting the families of the graduates.
Siglat is alive and kickin'! He's the only trained dog around for miles and has become sort of a novelty among the students. Still trying to figure out what to do with him in September!

Siglat posing for a quick picture.